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Is Employee Cynicism Killing Your Culture?

Rich Karlgaard

Mocking irony, snark, and cynicism are very much in vogue, but they are also toxic to your company’s culture. Most of us can agree that cynicism is ugly. It trivializes the gravity of bad behavior and normalizes superior attitudes toward customers and, often, coworkers. But widespread cynicism is also a red flag that something is seriously awry in your company. And that “something” centers on trust.

Cynicism is the defense mechanism of people who feel unsafe and powerless. It’s an expression of the uncertainty that comes from working in an environment where ethics are lax, employees don’t feel valued, and information is withheld. When it thrives in an organization, it signals a lack of employee trust—a problem that’s gotten significantly worse over the last generation. Building trust is not just a nice thing to do. It’s a strategic thing to do.

Trust underlies effective working relationships and improves group effectiveness and performance. It underpins organizational credibility and resilience. All of these factors contribute to creating a sustainable competitive advantage, because trust attracts talent, strengthens partnerships, and retains customers. The good news is you can tap into the strategic power of trust by consciously shifting your company’s culture as follows:

Know that trust has two dimensions: external and internal. First, there’s the external trust between an organization and its customers: Will a company stand behind its products? If something goes wrong, will they do the right thing? The second dimension is the internal trust between employees, managers, and top-level management. Do leaders keep their promises? Can employees speak up without censure? Do people have each other’s back (or stab them in it)? Generally, what’s true externally is also true internally. Cynicism cannot be eradicated if trust doesn’t extend in all directions. But know that you need to start internally, with the employees on whose commitment and engagement your success depends. If they don’t feel that they can trust your company with their careers, you’re in trouble.

Get clear on what a culture of trust and earnestness looks like. No doubt your employees have (probably very strong) opinions on trust within your company and where they’d like to see improvements. Hold a company-wide summit where everyone can share those opinions and include an anonymous component like a suggestion box or survey. Get everyone’s input, from the C-suite to the custodian. Your goal should be to pin down exactly how a culture of trust translates to leader and employee behaviors. Ask, "Who do we want to be?" Identify the ways cynicism manifests—for instance, through snarky comments, manipulating customers, talking behind coworkers’ backs, and so forth. Then, together, establish some ground rules aimed at dissolving cynicism and promoting old-fashioned values.

Then, get the “rules” in writing. Put the results of your trust summit in writing and ask all employees to sign this document. It should spell out actions like, “I will not badmouth customers,” or, “If I have something to say to an employee, I’ll say it to their face.” Some companies have even gone so far as to prohibit blind cc’ing in order to promote a culture of trust.

Of course you can’t simply outlaw cynicism and snark or talking behind someone’s back. Trust can thrive only when employees are treated like the self-respecting adults that they are. However, you can "formalize" values and ask people to abide by them. Creating the document shows that your organization is willing to go beyond mere lip service. Plus, people are just more likely to abide by an agreement if they’ve signed their name to it.

Let only “Boy Scouts” lead. (And Girl Scouts too, of course!) People will emulate leader behavior, whether it’s good or bad. It’s just human nature. Leaders who roll their eyes when a certain customer calls are giving permission for employees to be similarly disrespectful. Complain about your boss in the break room and you can expect to overhear your own team making fun of you as you approach the water cooler. The key is to hire and promote leaders who truly do live the values your company espouses.

Never lie or hide the truth. There are many things you’re thrilled to share with your employees. “Our customer satisfaction scores are 15 percent higher this year!” Or, “Our first quarter profits exceeded our goal!” Yet there are other things you might not be so eager to share, like, “We’re going to have to downsize,” or, “There aren’t going to be any raises this year…and by the way, we may have to reduce your benefits.” Tell them anyway. Even when the news is bad, people should never feel they’re being kept in the dark. Transparency and trust must coexist.

Show employees that you care. When people don’t believe their leaders care about them, not just as workers but as human beings, of course trust can’t thrive. And while it’s true that fake or contrived caring only increases cynicism, genuine caring dissolves it. This means leaders must be “people persons” who stand up for their employees’ best interests and don’t mind showing (appropriate) affection.

Aspire to predictability. It sounds a little dull. Most of us want to be known as creative, outside-the-box thinkers. We don’t want to be bound by routine or limited by “the way everyone else does it.” And that’s fine—embrace innovation to your heart’s content in areas like product development and marketing campaigns. Just don’t be unpredictable in your behavior, priorities, and values. Unpredictability destroys trust. The couches of psychotherapists are filled with people whose parents were unpredictable. As a leader, your team should have total confidence that you’ll do what you say you will. They should have no doubt that you’ll keep your promises, act with integrity, and look out for their best interests.

Make it safe to speak up. When your employees make an honest mistake, can they admit it without being scolded and belittled? What about input and ideas? Can they share those things and expect to be taken seriously? Hopefully, the answers to both questions is “yes.” Everyone should feel confident that they can participate in meetings and projects, say what’s on their mind, be respected for their opinions and ideas, and admit mistakes. Either trust rules your organization, or fear rules it—you have to choose.

Celebrate grit and gumption. If you want employees to be worker bees—performing the tasks you designate, on a timeline you set—compensate them with paychecks only. But if you want your employees to be partners, you’ve got to reinforce them when they act like partners. In other words, take notice when they display passion and motivation (grit) and initiative and guts (gumption). When employees do the things you want them to do—persevering through tough tasks, innovating, taking calculated risks—reward them. A simple thank-you can go a long way. So can public recognition at a meeting or through a company-wide email. And of course perks like ‘free’ vacation time or bonuses are always welcome. The point is, notice and celebrate the behaviors you want more of. When people are truly engaged, they can’t be cynical.

Constantly drive home the “meaning” of the work people do. One of the best methods to increase trust is to identify your greater purpose, your “true north.” Why do you exist? What meaningful value do you offer to employees, customers, or society? A great purpose should be aspirational, not merely financial. It should create a common cause and promote a collective effort. It should answer all the tough questions of why: Why commit? Why persist? And, most important, why trust?

Trust is, and always will be, the foundation of creating an award-winning environment and culture that leads to high performance and success.

Rich Karlgaard is publisher of Forbes magazine and author of The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success.


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